Deaf phone users disappointed by PUC contract

The Associated Press
Friday May 25, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — California’s deaf and disabled telephone customers will continue to receive their specialized phone service through MCI Worldcom until October 2002, state regulators announced after a 3-2 vote Thursday. 

The decision came despite appeals from dozens of deaf and disabled phone users who told the Public Utilities Commission they would prefer Sprint as their primary provider. 

“The feeling is that the deaf community is voiceless,” customer Julie Rems-Smario said through an interpreter after the vote.  

“Not one deaf person spoke in support of MCI.” 

MCI has been the primary provider of relay phone service – which uses an operator to translate a conversation into type or speech – to roughly 250,000 users statewide.  

The second extension of MCI’s contract will end in October, offering competitors a chance to win the contract. 

Had MCI lost its contract, the city of Riverbank would forfeit 500 jobs, Assemblyman Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, told the PUC.  

The Central Valley city of 16,000 already faces high unemployment rates, he said. 

The PUC needed to assign a one-year contract because a proposal for a new long-term deal from the Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program could take at least a year to be completed. The lack of overlap would have left customers with no service. 

The Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program is funded with a surcharge on California telephone bills and provides special equipment to help deaf and disabled customers use the phone. 

PUC President Loretta Lynch said at the end of bidding, MCI’s bid appeared slightly cheaper than Sprint’s. 

Phone calls to Sprint and MCI were not immediately returned. 

Lynch said the company had improved its service since assuming the contract nearly five years ago. 

Customers were not so impressed.  

They said Sprint has gone out of its way to work with them by adding relay service in Spanish and providing a separate phone number to access the service. 

“Imagine yourself if any of you became deaf? How would you communicate using the telephone?” customer Ken Arcia asked the PUC. “Sprint is the only relay service with a dedicated number (for deaf and disabled users), so that I don’t have to tell an operator each time. That makes it a faster call.” 

Those kinds of arguments swayed some commissioners. 

“I’m fully aware of the potential for job loss,” said Commissioner Richard Bilas, who voted against the decision noting he’d received many phone calls and e-mails in favor of Sprint.  

“My main priority is to all California users of this service. 

Commissioner Henry Duque, who voted for the decision, pointed out that consumers could still use a different company if they wished. 

“I truly believe the current state of service has improved chiefly because of the presence of choice,” Duque said. 


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